After traveling through the Alps in southern Germany, Altdorfer was so impressed by their beauty that he became the first painter of landscapes in the sense we know them. With other artists, they became known as the Danube School. They found their inspiration in biblical and historical motifs.
In 1528, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria commissioned Altdorfer with a series of historical paintings to hang in his home in Munich. The battle of Alexander at Issus shows the battle of Alexander the Great against the troops of the Persian Empire under the command of their king, Darius III, in 333 BC. The battle culminates in the victory of Alexander and prevents Muslims to conquer the west. The reason for the choice of this battle is significant because, during the time of Altdorfer, the Ottoman Empire also moved westward and several wars were fought in eastern and central Europe. In 1529, the ottomans sieged Vienna in their greatest advance in Europe, but they were eventually defeated.
With this painting, Altdorfer’s only intention is to show us the heroic achievement of the army of Alexander the Great against the foreign barbarians, and therefore he does not mind using symbols, anachronisms and, even, wrong information. The battle of Alexander at Issus is not the accurate portrayal of a historical event, it is an allegory.
In the foreground, we can look at the battle between the two armies. Alexander’s army is wearing steel armor, while the Persian army only wears red robes and turbans. In the center, we find Darius III in a chariot pulled by three horses while Alexander chases him with a spear.
The armies are situated in a dreamlike scenario. The sun, representing the West, comes from behind the mountains while a moon, representing the Muslims, fades and hides in the upper left corner of the painting. The mountain and the town behind the battle are fictional and, behind them, we find the island of Cyprus and the River Nile, geographical accidents that are impossible to see in the same picture.
The sign at the top reads: “Alexander the Great defeating the last Darius, after 100,000 infantry and more than 10,000 cavalrymen had been killed amongst the ranks of the Persians. Whilst King Darius was able to flee with no more than 1,000 horsemen, his mother, wife, and children were taken prisoner. “